Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Storytelling as Sacrament

Ancient cave drawings in Patagonia

Kara K Root
originally published in December 2012, Communitas journal, "The Art of Storytelling" - from Austin Seminary

Body of Christ
When you join Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church, you must tell a story. Technically, this is called, “being examined by Session.” It sounds like this should involve a cold stethoscope and a gown that opens at the back.  But we’re small, and not very formal, and we’ll let in just about anybody anyway, so we changed it up a bit. 
The first thing we do is rally some good snacks.  We line up our baked goods, cider, fancy cheeses and bars of chocolate along the counter and brew a big pot of good coffee.  Then we abandon agendas, reports and the boardroom table. We relocate to the comfy seats, because in real life being church together feels like sitting on couches side by side with mugs of hot coffee. 
Once we’re settled, we take up a single question sent out in advance, such as What is your earliest memory of prayer?  Share a time in your life when you experienced God in a mystical or moving way.  When has a specific passage of scripture impacted you, and how? 
And then the stories begin. As we listen, we see our own stories woven together with the people we are welcoming and with the people we’ve known for decades. 
Before we pray and descend on the snack table, I get to say to these new folks, something wonderful like, “As you come into this community, not only will this congregation impact your life, but you will change the community.  Your own passions, gifts, struggles, dreams, losses and joys will shape the life we share together, and will help form the ministry and calling of this congregation.  By the Holy Spirit, who binds us together, as our stories intertwine and journeys unfold, we will all be changed.” 
A few months before Easter, I contact a handful of folks: Would you be willing to reflect on where you have known resurrection in your life? I.e., How have you experienced hope from despair, life out of death?  It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, I say, because we all have stories of resurrection.  What is one of yours?  And, then, Would you consider sharing for our Stories of Resurrection Service?  
I always get a few “No thank yous” to sharing publicly, which, without fail, give me a chance to affirm the faith of these sisters and brothers expressed in other ways.  I also get some delicious, “I’ve never really thought of my life in that way. I’m not sure I would know what to say.  Could we talk about it?”  Those are my favorites.  Those inevitably mean coffee (and usually some kind of pastry) and a lovely conversation exploring together the presence of God in extraordinary and ordinary ways in someone’s life. 
When Stories of Resurrection Sunday comes, we have three people lined up to share 3-8 minute stories.  At least one of them is usually a surprise to folks, Wow! I never saw them as an upfront, sharing type!  We hear the gospel in three different voices, refracted through the lens of three different lives, often with words and images that might never appear in my preaching, but which connect deeply with people.  Before we sing our hymn, I stand beside this person and invite us all to lift them in gratitude. I thank God for their story, and for the resurrection hope that we witness in their lives. 
 People tell me every time how grateful they are for this service, and I watch these peoples’ stories become a sacred and shared text in our community.

One day we gathered for a very different kind of story telling. The communion table was left conspicuously open, the cup and platter in one back corner, a couple of candles in the other.  A big, soft chair, with a homemade quilt over it and a puffy footrest sat in the center of our space, flanked by rocking chairs and pews forming an intimate circle, the font on one end, the table on the other.
People came in with tissues in their pockets or purses; some couldn’t bring themselves to come at all.  Most entered timidly, quietly, apprehensively.  Then she came in, walker slowly pushed in front of her. She was guided to the special seat, her feet propped up on the plush cushion.
“Welcome to our ‘Keeping the Faith Ceremony,’” I said.  We acknowledged that our dear sister’s life was coming to an end, and we had been blessed beyond measure to share it with her. We read scripture and sang a hymn. We prayed and then the time came for us to fill the table. And we did. People brought items -- trinkets, jars of jam, silly gloves, magnets-- that had stories attached to them, sharing memories of her.  One person brought 8 mm footage of a family celebration, ending with our guest of honor 40 years earlier cheekily dancing at the camera.  Some brought flowers; a few brought “just myself and my words.”  Some merely stood and said how deeply they loved her, and that the rest of what they had to say was in the note in the basket by the door.
We gathered around and laid our hands on her.  We prayed for peace and God’s presence, we poured out our gratitude for her life and our sadness to be losing her.  We anointed her with oil and blessed her, just as she was anointed at her baptism, claimed by God and marked as Christ’s own forever.  We hugged her and returned to our seats to listen to sweet sopranos singing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”
And then it was over. Except nobody wanted to go.  We lingered nearly an hour.  Someone rustled up some cookies and someone else made coffee. We placed them with a jug of cider and some paper cups on the communion table, and lingered in the sacramental fellowship of love, the sacred space held by the Spirit of God.  In the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.  For Thou art with us. 
Two weeks later she died; her baptism was complete. We held in sacred gratitude that day we had spent with her, celebrating how her story is forever woven into our own.

Being church together means seeing each other’s story as glimpses of God revealed.  
And it is a sacred, blessed and wonderful business, indeed.

(Baptism portion of this article adapted from a contribution to the upcoming book, The RelationalPastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves, by Andrew Root, out April 2013)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very cool. Thank you.

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